Dominica: 2 Weeks in Paradise

Dominica bills itself as The Nature Island (of the Caribbean) and it certainly lives up to it. An island country in the Lesser Antilles, Dominica separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea, about 250 miles NE of Venezuela.

Cruise Ship Dock, Roseau

The “we” in this post refers to myself, my significant other Flow, and my brother Mike. The trip was nearly 6 months in the planning due to folks working out work schedules and such. Our first choice for vacation was Costa Rica, once that was ruled out we began searching for another tropical spot to spend the Spring. A friend suggested Dominica, none of us had ever heard of it, but a cursory investigation showed it to be ideal for our purposes. Beaches, rain forests, under-developed, and without population issues; it sounded perfect.

Finally the time for departure arrived. We drove over to St. Louis and caught an early morning flight to Miami where we transferred to a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In San Juan we caught a puddle jumper run by a regional airline for the final leg of our journey terminating at Douglas Charles Airport in Marigot, Dominica. We were met at the airport with our rental car, a Toyota Rav 4, a smaller 4 wheel drive cross-over vehicle. The airport is in NE Dominica and our first rental was across the island on a Caribbean beach in the small fishing village of Layou. We had previously rented houses/cottages on airbnb, the first week would be spent in Layou and the second week in the Kalinago village of Salybia on the East/Atlantic coast.

The sun was setting as we pulled out of the airport and soon it was poring down rain as well. With Dominica’s narrow and winding roads (devoid of street names) it took 2 hours to make the 50 km drive across the island. We had rented a house in Layou called The Beach House, the ground floor was an efficiency apartment and the upstairs was open air with stunning views of the Layou River and the Caribbean Sea. As the name of the place implies, behind the house was a beautiful Caribbean beach. All of this and cheaper than you can rent a Motel 6 in the States.

The following day we were up early and relished the opportunity to see what the island had to offer. We headed into the nation’s capitol of Roseau with the intention of visiting the Botanical Gardens to learn of the native plants and to get a feel for the island’s people. Driving into the city was arduous. The roads are narrow, there are no sidewalks and the pedestrians pay little attention to traffic, and then there is the whole driving on the left thing.

Roseau is a bustling city of nearly 14000 but its density makes it seem much larger. After many near misses of pedestrians and driving the wrong way on a couple of one way streets we got the car parked and hiked up the hill to the Botanical Gardens. The Gardens were not what we expected, the first of what would be many clashes between our first world expectations and the third world realities. While we expected native plants clearly labeled and layed out in a sensible manner, reality was plants from all over the world with a few being labeled and no real definitive layout. For me the highlight of the Botanical Garden was learning of 1979’s Hurricane David which had devastated the island. After the Botanical Garden we shopped the “Old Market” and visited the Dominica Historical Museum to learn of the history of the island. Lunch was our first real introduction to Dominican food and while I had a tasty chicken coconut dish, Mike had a soup of unknown origin filled with various unidentifiable animal parts with a gleaming pig’s snout in the center.

Trafalgar Falls, Roseau Valley

On our way back to Layou we stopped off at the Old Mill Cultural Center in Canefield. This was Dominica’s first sugar mill, now a small museum and art gallery; well worth the visit. A note on Dominican art: We visited a couple of small galleries and there was a definitive style that dominated. Oil paints applied thickly with heavy textures and lots of bright colors with red being predominant. The Mill, one of many stark reminders of Dominica’s slavery past, is now the center of Dominican culture.

The next day we headed up to Roseau Valley above Roseau in the Morne Trois Piton National Park and surrounded by looming volcanic peaks. This area has much natural beauty with numerous waterfalls, gorges, and the island’s largest lakes; all set in a lush tropical rainforest setting. The lakes of Freshwater and Boire are Dominica’s two largest lakes, we planned to hike around the first and end up at the second. We parked at the Freshwater Lake visitor center and set off for what the guidebook said would be a fairly easy 3 mile hike; alas, like most things Dominican, reality proved much more difficult. The trail immediately began to climb, and no moderate incline this. Up the trail climbed over steps carved into the mountainside, up through lush vegetation, up with only an occasional short decline.

Freshwater Lake Trail

By the time we were half way around the lake, Mike’s phone said we had climbed 70 flights of stairs, and we were all done in. We turned around, tucked our tails, and slunk back to the visitor center in defeat. While the defeat was a temporary setback, we took consolation in the reality that we were in fact in paradise. After this we drove over to Titou Gorge, where a short swim through an amazing gorge brings you to a waterfall. The water being cold, I passed on the swim, but Mike and Flow reported that it is well worth the effort. This was followed up with a trip to Trafalgar Falls (a stunning double waterfall) which is in the same area and then we were headed back to Layou for the evening.

In Dominica in general, and particularly in the smaller villages, nearly every residence is also a small business. Living rooms have been converted into bars and convenience stores, backyards have been converted into snackettes or wood shops, and there is a generally strong entrepreneurial spirit amongst the residents of the island. Big business is virtually non-existent and most purchases are made from family run small businesses. The small store next to our cottage in Layou would make us dinner if we ordered it ahead of time. For the equivalent of about $6 each, we could have a nice dinner waiting for us upon our return from the day’s adventure (more on Dominica food and money later).

Up to this point we had focused solely on the West central area of Dominica, it had become time to take our adventure further afield. With this in mind, we took a day to explore the Southwest part of the island. As usual, we got an early start. Our goal was to go snorkeling at Champagne Reef, one of the best dive spots in the Caribbean and close enough to shore to be accessible to snorkelers. Unfortunately, we ended up driving right past it and ended up in the seaside village of Soufriere. We ended up snorkeling at Bubble Beach, Champagne Reefs little brother. Both areas get their names from the underwater hot springs that leak bubbles from the sea shore making for a picturesque swim. We spent a few hours hanging out with the fish and enjoying the Geo-thermally heated sea. Then we headed South to island’s end at Scott’s Head where we hiked out on a peninsula with the Caribbean Sea on one side and Atlantic Ocean on the other. After this we grabbed a late lunch and headed back to Layou.

Southern tip of Dominica, Caribbean on the left and Atlantic on the right.

Aside: Money in Dominica. Dominica uses the East Caribbean Dollar. It is tied to the US Dollar so the exchange rate does not change, one US dollar is worth 2.67ECD. Lunch usually costs 15 to 30 ECD ($6-$12) with dinner ranging from 25 to 50 ECD ($10-$20). Cruise ships dock in both Roseau and Portsmouth so many businesses in these places will accept US money, as will many of the fancier places across the island. We used an ATM at the Canefield airport to obtain money, Visa added a $9 service fee per withdrawal so we maxed out the withdrawal at 1000 ECD.

The following day we headed North out of Layou. Just past Portsmouth there is a peninsula containing Cabrits National Park. We spent the morning there at Ft. Shirley, an 18th century English fort overlooking Prince Ruport Bay. Still being sore from climbing around Freshwater Lake, we toured the more accessible parts of the park which included the entire fort area. The seascapes alone are well worth the price of admission. Later we stopped by Mero beach which is reported to be one of the prime beaches in Dominica but was only marginally better than the beach at our rental. After lunch in Portsmouth we drove up the coast to land’s end at Capuchin.  As we returned South we detoured up a farm access road to find the Syndicate trail which is rumored to be a prime spot to see the island’s two types of parrots, both endemic to Dominica. This detour rewarded us with a 2 mile hike through beautiful and lush rainforest with a siting of Dominica’s national animal, the Jaco Parrot. I found this area intriguing, there were tree ferns 30 feet high and many types of trees whose roots came out of the tree 10 feet above the ground and snaked along on top of the forest floor. We also caught our only glimpse of an agouti while on this hike.

The next day we took a day off from adventure and enjoyed our little piece of paradise in Layou. We picked up trash on the beach, had drinks, walked up the river, hung out with our neighbors, and generally had a relaxing and fun day. The beach behind our house was beautiful dark sand and we usually had it all to ourselves with the exception of an occasional goat or chicken or two.

Aside: Community tourism. I had never really considered the term community tourism before this trip, now I am completely infatuated with the concept. This is tourism on the small scale, where one is embedded into the local community. Much travel consists of staying at resorts surrounded by other tourists with little interaction with the local community; excursions are then made in groups which makes it more like visiting a zoo than exploring a foreign land and people. Community tourism, in contrast, consists of either renting a house or room and surrounding yourself with the local atmosphere. In traditional tourism the money you spend aggregates with large businesses, the resort/hotel, professional guides, etc… With community tourism the money you spend is distributed throughout the community through local stores, restaurants, etc…  Community tourism offers far more immersion into the local atmosphere giving a truer glimpse of what life is actually like in the visited area.

The following day, our final day in Layou, we went back to Roseau and did a self guided historical tour of the city, visited a couple of small art galleries, and of course ate well. We returned to Layou early to pack and clean in preparation of moving to the other side of the island the following day.

Emerald Pool

The following day we packed up the car, said goodbye to our new found friends, and began our short journey across island to our second week rental in Salybia. Along the way we stopped off in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park to see Emerald Pool, one of Dominica’s premiere tourist spots. A short hike through the rainforest brings you to a hidden cove with a waterfall pouring into a pool, a serene and beautiful spot to take a refreshing swim. Then it was on to Salybia to our new rental, dubbed The Breezes Cottage. A small friendly space with views of the Atlantic Ocean in the heart of Kalinago territory.

“Kalinago” is the new and proper term for the indigenous people formerly known as Caribs. They came out of Venezuela in the centuries before Columbus and conquered the previous native peoples across the Caribbean. These were the first people Columbus met in the new world (he actually visited Dominica on his second trip). All of the Kalinago were enslaved, assimilated, or killed except for those residing within the rugged interior of Dominica. In 1903, these survivors were given their own territory in Eastern Dominica, it is administered similarly to the Native American reservations in the US.

Our first full day on the Eastern shore of the island was also Flow’s birthday, we all lived large in celebration. We started the day with breakfast at our host’s house which sits next door to the cottage that we rented, then we were off on our continuing grand adventure. We started by going North to Kalinago Barana Aute’, a reconstructed Kalinago village. Here we learned the history of the Kalinago and toured the village learning of their dugout canoes and how they extracted sugar from cane as well as their methods for turning the cassava root into bread. Of interest in this tour was the uses of the many native plants, medicinally and otherwise. After that we went in search of an ancient lava flow into the ocean at D’Escalier Tete Chien, unable to find it we finally had to hire a guide for the hike down to the ocean to explore it. It ended up being well worth it, the hike down the cliff was not too strenuous and the coastal views were well worth the expense and the hike.

Flow, myself, and our Kalinago guide, “Not-Byron”

Seeking refreshment after our hike we headed into Castle Bruce for lunch at a cliff side restaurant called Islet View, famous for its rum energy punch. While the punch may have had herbs in it to give one energy, it also had enough rum to make us sleepy. So we headed back to our cottage for an afternoon nap. Since the moon was full in celebration of Flow’s birthday, we headed down to Turtle Bay Resort in Rosalie for a fancy dinner and the chance to see sea turtles on the shoreline laying eggs. While we didn’t see any turtles, we did get a moonlit walk on the beach and a quiet respite sitting in the dark and listening to the surf.

Aside: Dining in Dominica. The vast majority of our meals and what restaurants in Dominica offered followed a familiar theme. Each meal would consist of meat (mostly chicken or fish but occasionally pork or goat), beans (usually red but sometimes lentils), rice, a small salad, and “provisions”. Provisions are the staple food on the island, these usually included 2 or 3 of the following: plantains, cassava, yams, green bananas, and/or breadfruit. Each meal’s variation would come from the sauce included with the meat, we had sauces based on lemons, coconut, curry, as well as a red Creole sauce. I am not generally a big fan of fish, but the freshness along with the cooking method had me eating it nearly every day. We had planned to do some of our own cooking but the cheapness of dining out combined with the expense of the grocery stores led to us not cooking at all. Although we would often eat a big lunch and then just snack in the evening.

The following day we headed up to explore the Northern Atlantic coast. We had found a couple of destinations in the guidebook that seemed approachable, per usual, the guidebook misled us. Whenever we would go in search of a place that the guidebook made look easy to find, we could not find it and would eventually ask for directions. The locals would tell us it is to hard to find on our own and offer to guide us for 50 ECD (about $20). This scenario would repeat on a nearly daily basis, and on this day we hired a guide to drive us around and show us multiple sites for 160 ECD. We started off at Chaudiere Poolense (a small waterfall and pool) near Bense. This was a pretty amazing place, a deep pool with a waterfall hidden away in the rainforest. We had the opportunity to jump from the rocks, swim and soak in the pool while experiencing the negative ions being generated, and diving near the waterfalls to get pushed downstream. After we hiked out of this area we took a short drive to the hike to Bwa Nef Falls. The hike to the falls crossed some private land with a small fee, and ended in a gorge with the waterfall cascading down the rock in the prettiest waterfall that I have ever seen.

Mike in Bwa Nef Falls

I cannot overstate the beauty of this waterfall. On the hike out we stopped at the private property site and were refreshed with coconut milk from the shell, coconut, and these tiny but very tasty heritage bananas. After this it was back into the car for a ride into the interior and a visit to Cold Sulphur Springs. These springs sat in a dead zone, and looked like boiling water but was actually a cold sulfur springs that bubbled out of the ground in numerous places. Then we finished our day by driving down to Portsmouth for lunch, dropping Jackson, our guide, back in Bense, and making the journey back to Salybia.

The next day we looked for some waterfalls and petroglyphs, but not finding them we didn’t ask for directions not wanting to pay 50 ECD for a guide. We did discover a small black sand beach and spent the rest of the morning swimming, frolicking in the waves like children, and soaking up the Caribbean sun. After this we headed down to Glassy Point, a hike down to the ocean ending in a volcanic outcropping with tide pools eroded into the lava and beautiful coastal views that took your breath away. The waves crashing on the rocks sending spray splashing upward made for a great background to our adventure.

With our time on the island winding down, we decided to head across the island the next day to snorkel at Champagne Reef. This is a pretty amazing spot, continuously rated the best snorkel site in the Caribbean and included on every top 10 dive site list. The reefs are close to shore and you have the opportunity to fully explore them as well as the hot water springs. The highlight of this day, perhaps the highlight of the entire trip, was swimming with a hawksbill sea turtle. We all ended up sun burned but agreed that it was one of the high points of the trip.

The next day, our final day on the island, we went back to the black sands beach and played in the surf, hiked the beach, and generally soaked in the melancholy that accompanies every great adventure as it comes to a close.

The following morning we said goodbye to host, Ma Eugenia, and were back at the airport before 6:30 AM for a full day of travel and waiting for transfers that wouldn’t see us getting home until midnight.

All in all an epic adventure that we all agreed that we would love to repeat while knowing that we never will. If you enjoy nature and are reasonably fit, I highly recommend this island gem as a destination for your next adventure.

I’ve posted more photos on flickr; thanks for reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s